For Black Students, The Pandemic Made Everything Worse

Black kids bore the brunt of worsened inequities resulting from the pandemic – facing disproportionate discipline, bullying, and fewer academic opportunities. (Remote learning/ Pexels photo by August de Richelieu)

by Aziah Siid

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators warned about the need to support school children during such a difficult and unprecedented time.  Anecdotal accounts revealed parents and students struggling to adjust to the new normal, but a new report backs up what many already knew. 

COVID-19 took a toll on the nation’s kids. 

First-time English learners grappled with language barriers. Students without computers or wifi at home navigated technological disadvantages. Caregivers fell behind on new methods of instruction.The bottom line is that students suffered,and unfortunately some demographic groups dealt with the consequences more than others.  

New data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights offers a closer look at the experiences students endured in the 2020–21 school year with disturbing findings for the most vulnerable communities.

“We cannot be complacent when the data repeatedly tells us that the race, sex, or disability of students continue to dramatically impact everything from access to advanced placement courses to the availability of school counselors to the use of exclusionary and traumatic disciplinary practices,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. 

The data, gathered from 17,000 school districts and over 97,000 schools, tell us more about student enrollment, access to resources, such as courses, teachers, the Internet and devices, and school climate factors, such as student discipline, harassment, and bullying.

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said the new data reflects the “troubling differences” students’ experience in the nations’ schools. Although the detailed report lists dozens of inequities that were already a concern for low-income – and Black – students, each of them were exacerbated during the pandemic. Amongst the top differences that set Black students apart was their experiences with racial harassment, disproportionality in discipline rates for Black boys, and lack of access to educational professionals and technology. 

Bullying and Harassment Is Real for Black Kids 

In March, Illinois passed the Racism Free Schools Act, which distinguishes racial harassment from bullying, with the goal of implementing safe practices, holding people accountable, and training teachers to be well suited to recognize and respond to it. 

But unfortunately not every state has followed suit as Black students still make up 35% of those who reported being bullied in the 2020-2021 school year, despite only making up 15% of the public school population. 

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In the latest survey of K-12 students, over 42,500 allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, race, disability, or religion were reported to school employees. 

Allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sex reached a high 41% across the board. 29% of students reported bullying or harassment on the basis of race, and 19% was on the basis of sexual orientation. Student reports of being harassed or bullied differed by race. 

Sadly, Black students represented more than a third of students who reported being harassed or bullied of race with boys being overrepresented in being harassed or bullied on the basis of race or disability. Girls were overrepresented in reports of being harassed or bullied on the basis of sex.

The Disproportionate Rate of Discipline Continues

Data consistently shows Black students, particularly Black boys, continue to be disciplined and punished by school officials at a disproportionately higher rate than their white counterparts beginning as early as preschool. 

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About 786,600 K-12 students received one or more in-school suspensions, about 638,700 received one or more out-of-school suspensions, and about 28,300 received an expulsion. 

Boys were overrepresented in K-12 school discipline outcomes, according to the survey, but Black boys were nearly two times more likely than white boys to receive an out-of-school suspension or an expulsion. 

Students with disabilities were not exempt from the overrepresentation in discipline outcomes, which is shown to be a direct contributing factor to the school-to-prison pipeline. The group represented 17% of K-12 student enrollment but accounted for 29% of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions and 21% who received expulsions.

In addition, “boys, Black students, students of two or more races, and students with disabilities who received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were subjected to restraints and seclusion at higher percentages than their overall K-12 enrollments,” according to the survey. 

Three years after the defund the police movement sparked community debates about the presence of law enforcement in schools, students are still being arrested at school in large numbers. 

Lengthy juvenile detention or probation sentences don’t help the progress of most Black children, but such punishments were disproportionately applied to Black students, who made up 18% of students referred to law enforcement and 22% of students subjected to a school-related arrest. 

Student Access to Resources Is Limited

While Black students were overrepresented in bullying and  punishment, they were underrepresented in access to academic resources, such as laptops for virtual classes, school counselors, and Advanced Placement courses. 

Only 35% of high schools with high enrollments of Black and Latino students offered calculus, compared to 54% of high schools with low enrollments of Black and Latino students, according to the data.  

The report found similar disparities in computer science, where only 40% of schools with high enrollments of Black and Latino students offered courses compared to 54% of schools with low enrollments of Black and Latino students. 

As conservative policymakers and parents continue their crusade against teaching critical race theory and true African American history, Black students face a parallel struggle just to get into the most challenging  courses. 

Black students represented only 10% of students enrolled in AP computer science, 8% of students enrolled in AP science, and only 6% of students enrolled in AP mathematics. Enrollment in AP courses leads to higher test scores and college success and becomes a stepping stone for Black students to partake in the world of STEM/STEAM. 

Pandemic-era remote learning also reinforced racial and socio-economic barriers. For the 2020-21 school year, schools were “required to report data on students’ access to the internet and devices at schools,” which gave a clear indication of the discrepancies. 

Geographical disparities also were a force to reckon with as 66% of students’ in Florida reported the lowest percentage of schools connected to the internet, while access in states like Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia reported that 99% or more of their schools were connected to the internet.